Saturday, October 21, 2000
R O O T S


The Olympics

THE ancient Greeks measured time in Olympiads or blocks of four years. The first Olympic games in 776 B.C. were held on the Plain of Olympia in Greece and involved religious rituals, as sports were held as an offering to Zeus, King of Gods. The origin of the word could be eponymous of the place or of the period of four years. Non-athletic events were featured too. At one of the games, Herodotus read all his nine books of history to an enthusiastic crowd. Contest was athlos in Greek which later on gave us words like biathlon, double contest; triathlon, triple contest; decathlon, ten-fold contest and perhaps, also the word athlete. Athlete could also have come from the name of the Greek Goddess of War and Wisdom, Pallas Athele. Born from the head of Zeus, she came into the world fully armed for the Olympics. She was born with a javelin in her hand!

As is the case with words linked with changing customs, the origin of athlete cannot be attributed definitely to one source. No harm in taking a peep at the possible roots. The Greek athlon meaning award or prize could also have led to athlete or competitor via the verb athlein, meaning competing for a prize.

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The word-story of stadium spans centuries just as the Olympics. Greek stadion denoted a race-track, particularly the one at Olympia, which was about 185 metres long. The word came to be used as a term for a measure of length equal to this and that was the sense in which English originally acquired it, via Latin stadium. The Greek word itself was an alteration of an earlier spadion, racetrack and the change from sp to st was maybe set in motion by Greek stadios, meaning fixed, firm.

The story of the origin of the word marathon has many versions. The story relates to 500 B.C. when the Ionian Greeks devastated the isle of Sardis, a Persian colony, causing Persia to invade Greece in retaliation. The vast, well-equipped Persian army met a tiny army of Greeks on the plains of Marathon. Against all odds, the tiny force defeated the Persians. So far, all the versions tally. But at this point, they diverge. As per one, Phidippides, the best runner in Athens, ran the 26 miles from Marathon to Athens, announced the good news and then dropped down dead from exhaustion. The second version holds that Phidippides was sent to Sparta to seek assistance and he covered the 26 miles in one day. But, the Spartans refused his request due to their long-time rivalry with Athens. The rest of the facts are clear. After being abandoned in the 4th century A.D, when the Games were revived in Athens in 1896, a long-distance run was planned to cover the same stretch that Phidippides had covered almost 2400 years ago to commemorate his feat of endurance. Over years, marathon came to be used for any activity requiring endurance and stamina.

Tap-root

With the march of time, words not only expand, but contract in meaning as well. The Hindi vidyarthi was used for anyone in search of vidya or learning. It could be a schoolchild or a 70-year-old. Today vidyarthi and chhatra are synonymous, that is, a student in an educational institution. Similarly, vedna meant both a happy and an unhappy experience just by the addition of an adjective before the word. Today, vedna has contracted to a very unhappy experience.

Deepti

This feature was published on October 14, 2000